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Samuel Adler: So Much Still to Say

To Speak to Our Time
Choral Works by Stephen R. Haynes
Gloriæ Dei Cantores. $13.50

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That Samuel Adler was a great composer was no revelation. Nor that he was a refugee from Nazi Germany. Nor that he headlined composition faculties at Eastman and Juilliard for decades. Nor that his hundreds of works transcended countries and religions. Nor even that he was a real mensch. But that he is composing prodigiously at age 94 — that was a surprise most pleasant. And he still has something to say.

In this album of choral works, Gloriæ Dei Cantores returns to territory the ensemble knows well. Its long love affair with the composer shows in fine, moving renditions. Richard K. Pugsley directs the forces with superb musical sense. “To Speak to Our Time,” the main work, presents eight movements for choir and two violins. Lucia Lin and Julianne Lee shine in violin duets preceding each chorus, sometimes spare and angular, other times lyrical and lush.

“Chor Der Wandernden” (Chorus of the Wanderers) presents poet Nelly Sachs’s anguish in powerful, disturbing phrases, yet the refugees’ heavy tread and soul-crushing rejection is raised by soprano Diana Shannon’s bright, moving solos. “Psalm 121” (“My help comes from the Lord”) in Hebrew constitutes the next chorus. Its expansive music reassures in mostly homophonic sound while flowing with devotion and energy.

“Psalm 111” (“In you, Lord, have I trusted”) animates a particularly beautiful chorus through the Latin Vulgate text. Smooth unison lines recall chant origins, alternating with ravishing full-choir verses. In the final movement the violins join a grand chorus based on Isaiah 60 in William Cowper’s English versification (“Hear what … the Lord hath spoken”). Its luminous music provides us the afflicted with a glorious promise of heaven. Throughout, the performers rise to the shifting demands of the music with a rich, confident sound.

Adler’s music is grounded in expanded 20th-century harmony, using crunches to move the music along rather than settling into today’s clichéd cluster chords; he maintains and develops melodic interest rather than hold static tones in suspended animation. It is not easy listening, but multi-layered musical activity suited to the multiple levels of meaning in the texts, deep and satisfying to my ear. Eight tracks of varied sacred anthems explore a range of moods and showcase the chorus in varied styles. The material, all in English and most accompanied, is ample for decent amateur choirs.

“Let Us Rejoice” pairs sopranos and altos with bells in lively celebration; the singers here sound particularly sweet. A tranquil “Psalm 23” begins in Hebrew, then turns to English; the choir in this emotes beautifully, whether on unison phrases or harmonized passages, under a masterful organ halo.

The album closes with a setting of “Amazing Grace” for choir and organ composed, as requested, as if Aaron Copland had written it. It’s a testament to Adler’s grace that he accepted the commission and delivered yet another gem. Again, Gloriæ Dei Cantores provides a sensitive, reverent performance. This is a recording I will listen to repeatedly and gladly give to others.

 

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